One of the more curious album releases of the past spring was “Southern Family,” a song scrapbook abundant with music that adheres to what its title promises: heartfelt and sometimes sentimental stories of familial love and culture as they exist below the Mason-Dixon Line. The record isn’t credited to any artist, but Americana producer of the moment Dave Cobb is the ringleader. He corralled an all-star roster of acts into Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A and oversaw all of the recording sessions.
About halfway down an impressive guest list of performers that includes Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert and Zac Brown is Jamey Johnson.
The placement is especially telling. Johnson has been one of the great country music traditionalists to emerge in the past decade. In terms of writing style, vocal presence and stylistic perseverance, Johnson recalls a young Merle Haggard. Not surprisingly, the two artists were close friends. Upon Haggard’s death in April, Johnson recalled his friend’s mentoring influence.
“There was a time when I really wasn’t right and I didn’t have any inspiration or motivation to write songs,” Johnson wrote on his website. “Then Merle told me, ‘I wish you’d write some more songs, just because I want to hear them.’ Those were the words that got me crawling out of my slump and trying to find my voice again.”
An Alabama native, Johnson’s slow-smoked country sound created a serious commercial buzz when the tunes “Give It Away” and “In Color” were given song of the year honors by the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association in 2007 and 2009, respectively.
Subsequent albums like 2010’s “The Guitar Song” (an impressive collection of original tunes) and 2012’s “Living for a Song” (a tribute to iconic country composer Hank Cochran that featured the diverse collaboration of Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss and Haggard) became top-five hits, forging a place for Johnson’s tradition-minded music in a modern country music marketplace.
Since then, we’ve heard little from Johnson outside of yearly concert visits to Renfro Valley. With the exception of a 2014 holiday EP (“The Christmas Song”), there has been no follow-up album to “Living for a Song.” It’s almost as if Johnson was waiting out the Bro Country movement to make his presence known on country radio again. That’s what makes “Mama’s Table” such an assertive affirmation of Johnson’s sense of stylistic tradition. The song is a study in understated but devout country solemnity with a sense of familial solace that sounds deeply rustic but never austere.
It’s also cool to know that Johnson has taken so readily and regularly to Kentucky audiences. Even before his Renfro Valley shows became an annual tradition of sorts, he visited Winchester. The occasion was a Labor Day weekend concert in 2009, staged as part of the city’s Daniel Boone Pioneer Festival. The show coincided with a time when Johnson’s commercial and artistic visibility reached a zenith. Let’s hope the Nashville norm shifts enough that his regally traditional sound can find the spotlight again soon.
Friends & Neighbors
8 p.m. Aug. 30 at the John Jacob Niles Gallery and Center for American Music in the Lucille Little Fine Arts Library, University of Kentucky, Patterson and Library Dr. $5. Friendsandneighbors.no.
All is not as it seems as “Hymn for a Hungry Nation,” the title tune to the 2014 album by Friends & Neighbors, commences. There is an initial, inviting bit of boppish swing. Then, just as if someone triggers a detonation device, the music explodes. First from the fold is pianist Oscar Gronberg, who sounds like Thelonious Monk in an ultra-playful modal mode, scrambling for a melody but choosing instead to go outside and around it. Then trumpeter Thomas Johansson and drummer Tollef Ostvang engage in a duo grudge match before saxophonist Andre Rolighten takes over for tenor rumbles. A furious ensemble exchange ensues under which bassist Jon Rune Strom provides an underpinning that strenuously compliments the instrumental acrobatics above him. And that’s just the first five minutes of the album.
Friends & Neighbors, an alliance of Norwegian and Swedish jazz improvisers, will kick off the fall season of the long-running Outside the Spotlight Series on Aug. 30 at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery. This will be the band’s first OTS appearance, but several of its members are returnees.
Johansson performed as part of Cortex in a September 2015 concert at Mecca that stands as one of the series’ great sleeper shows. Ostvang played a set earlier last year with the Keefe Jackson Quartet at the Farish Theatre and as recently as June with Universal Indians at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Strom is the regular, having played Lexington several times with the Frode Gjerstad Trio, last year with Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit at the Downtown Arts Center and in June as another member of Universal Indians.